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COVID-19 Should Make UsRe-imagine the World Order


Published with the kind permission of the author

As a bio-security crisis brings theworld to a brink, the dominantneo-liberal vision of world ordermust be displaced by a humaneglobalism and institutions thatactually supply public goods.

The COVID-19 or the novel coronaviruscould not have broken outat a worse time. A slowing globaleconomy, a fraying international order,social discontent and political apathyacross countries, and then topped off witha global pandemic threatening peoplesand communities across 120 countries.Worse case scenarios paint a frighteningspectre. If we assume 30%–70% infectionrate of the world’s population and a fatalityrate of 3%, the result would be nearly70–165 million fatalities. The previous suchvirus, severe acute respiratory syndrome(SARS) killed fewer than 800 people at afatality rate of 10% of those it infected.SARS appears a mild episode comparedto what we have witnessed so far thisyear. The ease of transmission betweenhumans and the mildness or undetectabilityof its early symptoms, particularlyin the young, makes COVID-19 deadlyand unprecedented.

Across the world, authorities are grapplingto contain the virus with degradedor underfunded public health systems. Itis a race against time, with containmentthe only option before a viable cure isinvented and made available on a largescale. But, it is also the spillover of thispandemic on to global politics and geoeconomicsthat could upset calculationsof strategists everywhere.

Even without this global health crisis,the world was confronting simmeringproblems on several fronts. For one, thepost-Cold War unipolar order has brokendown and the United States (US) and itsallies cannot put it back together again.Yet, great power challengers like Russiaand China and several regional powersdo not possess the power and nor arethey inclined to rule the world. Thisimpasse is not producing the conversationswe need to imagine a more sustainableand colla borative order. For another, commerce and economic life ingeneral has been tepid for the pastdecade. Despite fi ts and starts driven byclever manipulations of interest ratesand the role of the banking system,major economies deluded themselvesinto believing the 2008 economic crisiswas behind them. India’s own experience—a microcosm of the ineffectivenessof neo-liberal economics—showsthat even potentially high-growth regionshave not succeeded in shrugging offthe imbalances and distortions in theeconomic system. 

If it were a question of business cyclesand geopolitical disagreements, the internationalorder could stutter along forsome years. What we see instead is adystopian reality in the West and theEast, an age where the fundamentalpremises of what ought to constituteorder and policy is being shocked by disruptionswithin and between politicalcommunities. Is it about the decline ofthe West, which held sway over the fateof the planet for nearly fi ve centuries,and the rise of an impatient rest? Is itabout a civilisational struggle betweenAsian or Eurasian nationalisms and adominant neo-liberal image that seeksto eviscerate culture and identity frompolitics and society? Is it about a clashbetween international capital and weaknon-Western states on the periphery, acontest where the US and China mighthave more common material intereststhan their elites admit to? Is it a revoltagainst globalism by local and nationalcommunities in the north and south thatgot left behind in the neo-liberal age?All these binaries have much truth inthem, and yet, none dominates thenarrative or pulse of the street. The complexityof disruptions makes previousideological and power contests appearinnocent and utterly detached from thebiggest questions of our time.

All these contestations, however, dohave a common strand: the interdependenceof our contemporary internationallife. Aided by digital and transport technologiesand further propelled by capitaland the innate desire for a better life,societies are more inter-connected than at any time in world history. No majorpower is really trying to roll the clockback on this feature of our age. They areeach bringing their values and interestsand, of course, power to shape all theseinter-connections in ways that benefi ttheir domestic politics and vested interestsat the helm. Yet, for all the technologicaland fi nancial resources at their disposal,the absence of genuine multilateralcooperation has been exposed by theCOVID-19 outbreak.

Just like the trivial event that the G-20summits have become for managing theworld economy or the United NationsSecurity Council is for confl ict managementand diplomacy, the void of meaningfulinter-state cooperation on biosecurityshould make us rethink the veryconcept of world order. To some extent,climate change and the inescapable realityof a common ecological fate for all mankindshould have prompted major powersto craft new norms and institutions thatcould transcend intra-mural suspicionsand national interests. But it did not. Abio-crisis like a phantom pandemic thatspreads in the shadows is the ultimatefoil for those who resisted supportingthe material and social interdependenceof our epoch with progressive normsand effective institutions. It is now oneworld, and leaving that world to its owndevices is fraught with dangerous consequences,perhaps even more so thanthe spectre of a nuclear holocaust thatkept major powers on the edge duringthe Cold War.

An Inflexion Point

For the moment, countries are retreatinginto their national shells to maintainsheer survival. As the dust settles andhealth systems across the world come toterms with their fallibility to safeguardtheir own people, the opportunity forradical shifts in the discourse on worldorder must not be lost. We are at aninfl exion point.

The utter human destruction causedduring World War II brought the ideaof one world into the lexicon of internationalpolitics. The world could nolonger be left to the patterns of the past,where national communities ravagedeach other in endless quests for wealth and power. Although the superpowersdid carve up much of the world intoexclusive blocs with their own rules, thenuclear revolution made it apparent toanybody with common sense that theplanet could not be managed merelythrough rivalries and balance of power,the legacy of European statecraft.

The unusual geopolitical stability fromthe Cold War age paved the way for aresumption of inter-connections betweensocieties. Technology and the incessantquest for profi t and new markets madecapital and big business the vanguardto break out of national shells andglobalise the planet. What emerged wasa heady neo-liberal age where past contradictionsbetween different forces andinterests in a political economy wereswept aside in favour of the smallest butmost powerful groups who mobilisedpolitical power to create the so-calledrules-based order. For the most part,these were exceptions made for theprivileged sections of national communitiesto enjoy the advantages of a “oneworld” economy.

This neo-liberal age exhausted itself forthe same reason that capital exhaustedits growth cycle in national economies.It never truly sought accommodationwith other stakeholders, and thereforenever designed international institutionsand norms that would provide fairplay to other actors in the game—theperiphery in the global South, the middleclasses, the vast unskilled labour orsemi-skilled workforce, and proud non-Western civilisations in Eurasia. All thesewere merely forces in the way—of adynamic production and consumptionsystem, not necessarily the most effi cientin managing the planet’s scarce naturalresources or safeguarding its fragile biosphere.Neither did it seek to empowerpeople, despite all the false pretentions ofliberty and freedom that neoliberalismpackaged itself with in its crusade. Theassault on neo-liberal globalism frommultiple directions including from withinthe most advanced and prosperous societiesin the West is an opportunity forreal change.

We have created an inter-connectedworld, but without sophisticated modes ofinter-state coordination and cooperation. We now have a balance of power butwithout real multilateralism. To borrowfrom Karl Polanyi, the present order hassubordinated “the substance of societyto the laws of the market.” And, dominantrules or laws today are ambivalent towardsor, in many instances, work against humansecurity. A biosecurity crisis had laidbare the futility of distorted globalismthat is increasingly reviled everywhere.Ad hoc national responses reveal “thegaps in the multilateral system’s currentability to manage fast-moving, complex,and interlinked chains of cause andeffect” (Cliff and Openheim 2020).

Yet, these gaps are not an oversight.They refl ect the narrow perspectives ofthe progenitors of the neo-liberal orderwho never invested in capacities orendorsed ideas that buttressed humansecurity. It cannot be one world only forfi nance capital or one world only forsuper elites accessing tax-free havens orone world only for international securityand nuclear stability. All this becomesmeaningless without human security, aconcept that has been mocked and trivialisedeven by elites in the global southw ho were all too eager to plug into thesparkling neo-liberal “one world” for thefew. But, as Mike Davis (2020) observes,“capitalist globalisation now appears tobe biologically unsustainable in theabsence of a truly international publichealth infrastructure.” If there is a cruelirony and lesson of COVID-19, it is thatselective visions of world order haveexposed people everywhere.


Cliff, Sarah and Bob Oppenheim (2020): “What theCoronavirus Means for the UN, IMF, and WorldBank,” Centre for International CooperationBlogs, 20 March, 

Davis, Mike (2020): “Mike Davis on COVID-19: TheMonster Is Finally at the Door,” Links InternationalJournal of Socialist Renewal, 12 March , nally-at-the-door.

Source: Economic & Political Weekly